Adrienne Tanner is a Vancouver journalist who writes about civic affairs.
Count me among those who thought both Mayor Kennedy Stewart, his opponent Shauna Sylvester and others ran on overly ambitious transit plans during the last municipal election.
Ms. Sylvester stated she thought it was possible to wrangle the money needed to build a new SkyTrain line straight to the University of British Columbia in one shot. Currently, only the first portion of the SkyTrain line from Clark Drive to Arbutus Street has been financed. She was convinced a good chunk of the additional money could be prised from UBC and a First Nations conglomerate with development plans on a large chunk of land along the second half of the route.
Mr. Stewart was less categorical but also said he supported SkyTrain to UBC and if elected, would do what he could to make it happen. On Wednesday, he finessed the first step when council voted overwhelmingly to endorse the plan.
There is nothing revolutionary about the idea. But it is far outside the scope of a deal reached by all the Metro Vancouver mayors who sit on the TransLink Mayors’ Council, which had set a 10-year course for regional transportation investment. Mr. Stewart is now angling to wedge the full SkyTrain line into the 10-year-plan. So what are his chances? I’m beginning to think better than I had initially wagered.
At a meeting in late January, TransLink accepted a city report making a case for SkyTrain to UBC. The university says it will contribute to the costs – although the amount has yet to be decided. And this week, council received a letter of support from the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations (MST) development company supporting the line, although no cash or land has been offered yet.
Vancouver’s board of trade is penning opinion pieces touting the merits of SkyTrain, and although the business group’s endorsement doesn’t come with cash, the board is an influential political voice.
Mr. Stewart says he needs a business case in hand, before pushing other levels of governments for more money. When he raised the topic with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau earlier this week at the big city mayors' conference, the first question the PM asked was, “How much will it cost?” The answer is a lot. The stretch from Arbutus to UBC could run as high as $4-billion if the entire line goes underground, less if some of it runs above. Mr. Stewart says his goal is now to make this an issue in the next federal election, which must be held before Oct. 21. That’s not a bad strategy given the current political climate.
The federal Liberals won four of six seats in Vancouver in the last election and Mr. Trudeau will be hugely motivated to keep them. But after burning some political goodwill with the Trans Mountain pipeline purchase and expansion, he needs a way to burnish his reputation with Vancouverites.
Housing and transportation are key issues here and the Liberals have promised money for both. But so far, the party’s $40-billion national housing strategy has yielded little if any affordable or social housing in B.C. That point is already being hammered by New Democrats who are fighting for a seat for leader Jagmeet Singh in the Burnaby South by-election.
Even if Mr. Trudeau finds a quick way to dole out housing dollars, there will be no rash of ribbon cuttings before the next election. The Prime Minister seems to be feeling the pressure. At the big city mayors' conference earlier this week, he chastised provincial governments for failing to co-operate to get infrastructure projects off the ground.
With housing projects stalled, that leaves transportation infrastructure as the easiest win for the feds. Social housing, although a desperately needed piece of the affordability fix, is expensive and directly benefits only those who live in it. Train lines, as well as being environmentally meritorious, serve thousands of people every day.
SkyTrain to UBC by 2030 is still a long shot. Big city mayors across the country will be doing the same political calculations in the election lead-up and they’ll all have designs on money for infrastructure projects. Still, Mr. Stewart might as well push now while both the federal and provincial governments are highly motivated to please Vancouver. There is nothing to lose, and potentially a shiny new train line to gain.